Tabernacle Gives More Study To Emergency Services And Capital Bond Ordinance

Pencils StudyAt the May 8, 2017 public meeting, township committee turned its attention to two issues that had been sitting on its back burner. These are the township’s capital improvement plan (road improvements and equipment purchases) and emergency services (how to better organize and fund fire, rescue and EMS). Both issues were discussed and the committee decide to look into them further. Subcommittees were formed or re-tasked for this purpose.

Emergency Services

The committee’s review of emergency services dates back to 2014, when a subcommittee (Kim Brown and Steven Lee) was created to examine the proposed dissolution of the independent Tabernacle Fire District. The proposal called for Tabernacle Township to take over the management of fire services. The subcommittee recommended dissolution and the committee approved.

Since the dissolution, Tabernacle Township has managed fire services and contracted with a new volunteer fire company, Tabernacle Fire Company #1.

The Township’s said that its purpose for the dissolution and reorganization was to:

…centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the Township.

Despite new management and the new fire company, significant conflicts between the fire company and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad continued. So did problems caused by the lack of oversight of the TRS. The critical event was the revelation that the TRS had entered into a secret agreement with Shamong Township to provide free services to Shamong residents using Tabernacle resources.

In response, in late 2015, the committee established a Public Safety Subcommittee to “investigate and review the current structure and organization of emergency services throughout the Township of Tabernacle.” This subcommittee consisted of Deputy Mayor Joe Yates and Mayor Steven Lee).

The Public Safety Subcommittee issued a report in March 2016, which made a number of general observations and recommendations. But subcommittee members were careful to say that more work and more discussion were needed to finalize a plan for emergency services.

One recommendation was that the township enter into a contract with the TRS. The committee started to move forward on this in August 2016. But, after initial discussion, the proposed contract was tabled.

Another recommendation was to create a Public Safety Director within the township to provide better management of emergency services. The 2017 budget includes $10,000 for this position to allow the committee to move forward if it decides to. The scope and responsibilities for the position have not yet been defined.

One of the primary concerns regarding emergency services is its cost. Over the past two years, I’ve frequently written about how unbalanced the township’s funding of emergency services is. The TRS’s funding is so large that it built a cash surplus and a member-reimbursement program while our local tax rate had to be increased in 2016 and 2017 (two cents each year). These issues were also raised to the committee at public meetings.

Here’s what I wrote in my last Post (May 7, 2017); it’s similar to earlier Posts and statements that I’ve made.

Tabernacle also gives the TRS the free use of the $4 million dollar Emergency Services Building. TRS pays no rent while taxpayers spend over $250,000 annually to pay off the bond that funded the ESB’s construction.

The committee also gives the TRS free fuel and free insurance. Tabernacle also pays TRS $35,000 annually to cover the cost of uncollected billings. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Tabernacle gave TRS $70,000 per year for uncollected billings, which was twice the actual cost. The committee allowed the TRS to keep the overpayments.

The TRS’s funding is also so large that it offers a compensation plan to its “volunteers.” It paid the “volunteers” $78,000 in 2015. Not surprisingly, the TRS’s compensation draws EMS personnel away from other townships.

The committee never seemed concerned about the costs of emergency services until the budget hearing, April 24, 2017.

At the April 24 meeting, Committeeman Barton pointed out that when the committee dissolved the fire district, it took district monies and used them to balance the township budget. He recommended that the committee consider a similar approach with it’s funding of the TRS. He suggested that the committee look at all township expenditures made on behalf of the TRS. Basically, to review all of the items that I had written about.

At the May 8 meeting, Mayor Lee commented about the cost of emergency services funding. As Committeeman Barton previously suggested, the Mayor called for an examination of the total cost of emergency services (including bond costs, operational costs, insurance costs and fuel costs). He led the committee to form a subcommittee to do that analysis. Committeewoman Kim Brown will be working with Administrator Cramer to do this work.

Mayor Lee credited Committeewoman Brown for calling him to suggest the cost analysis. “Having numbers give you a much better position [to understand.]” she said.

I couldn’t agree more. Too bad she didn’t take this approach when she did the so-called “thorough investigation” of the dissolution of the fire district in 2014.

The dissolution of the fire district was the central destabilizing event in the delivery and management of Tabernacle’s emergency services. There were other decisions that contributed to the current chaos. These include the former fire company’s lawsuit over the rescue tools and the committee’s punitive settlement, the committee’s transfer of rescue services from the fire company to the TRS and the committee’s allowance of the TRS insurance billing program. But the dissolution of the fire district fundamentally changed the relationships between the township and the emergency service organizations. It also fundamentally changed the funding process.

Hopefully, this third subcommittee, can bring about the long promised:

…centralize[d]…delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the Township.

Capital Improvements

The road improvement program was preliminarily explained by Township Engineer Dante Guzzi at the beginning of the budget process as part of Administrator Cramer’s explanation of the draft 2017 budget. At that time, Mr. Guzzi explained that he and Mr. Cramer had traveled most of the roads and that he or they had prepared a list of seven roads that should be repaved.

During the budget process, I and my husband questioned why these seven roads were chosen because they looked to be in good shape and other roads were significantly worse. The committee didn’t consider which particular roads should be repaved during the budget process. It simply budgeted $900,000 in the capital budget for road improvements in 2017. It left details of the road improvement program to be discussed when the capital bond ordinance was introduced.

At the May 8 meeting, Bond Ordinance 2017-7 was introduced. The bond ordinance, in total, calls for an appropriation of $1,385,000 for expenditures. These include $900,000 for road improvements, $355,000 for public works equipment and $130,000 for various fire equipment. The ordinance proposes a down payment of $69,250 and the borrowing of $1,315,750 to fund these expenditures.

The committee’s discussion focused mostly on the $900,000 road program.

Committeeman Barton commented that an improved maintenance program, something more than patching potholes, could extend the life of the roads and reduce the need for repaving. Administrator Cramer replied that the township used to regularly reseal roads eight to 10 years ago; and he is looking into the availability of rental equipment to get back into it. Township Engineer Guzzi commented that it would be possible to contract for upgraded road maintenance.

Mr. Barton asked Mr. Cramer to put together a list of the roads that were improved in the last 10 years and those that are proposed in the next five years so that the Committee can look at them and decide what should be done.

After this discussion, it was clear that additional study was needed. Mayor Lee wisely recommended tabling the bond ordinance so that further study could be done. The committee agreed and the ordinance was tabled.

The next township meeting is June 26, 2017, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.